Greenwich Barbers

I was given a copy of Brewers Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable for Christmas, after seeing and not-very-subtly coveting it in Waterstones. It’s a great book – one of those lovely ‘dipper’ volumes that you don’t read from cover to cover but return to every so often for a new nugget of curious knowledge.

I didn’t expect to find much about Greenwich that I hadn’t heard of before in a book that was London-wide; but I hadn’t come across the term “Greenwich Barber” before. Greenwich Geese, yes, Barbers, no.

According to the book, it’s “an 18th and 19th Century slang term applied to the people who obtained and sold sand from the Greenwich sandpits.” It would seem that it derived from the idea of their ‘shaving’ the sand away from the seams.

I confess the etymology of this feels a bit weird. I tried googling it and found very few references to the term among all the adverts for hairdressers in Connecticut. Most of the references I did find come from people referencing Brewers; Websters claims the original source to be the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. I have no doubt it actually was a phrase then, but how widespread it would have been, I have no idea.

If memory serves, the Greenwich sand pits focused around the Diamond Terrace area (I’m still waiting for my invite to one of those fabled cocktail parties in a back garden ‘grotto’ made from an old sandmine, hint, hint…) though I’m sure the splendid fellows at Subterranean Greenwich will be tacking the subject of sand mines soon.

The sand went to make Greenwich Glass – which, depending on which account you read, was very fine or absolutely awful. Since I have never seen a single example of Greenwich Glass, I have no opinion on the matter, but I did discover that the Duke of Buckingham, who was Charles I’s favourite, was a bit of a science-buff (they called them ‘chymists’ in those days) and got into glass making. His nice-little-earner monopoly ran out when Oliver Cromwell came to power, but Buckingham managed to persuade the Lord Protector to ban foreign imports, which had much the same effect. The duke’s glassworks in Vauxhall and Greenwich thrived.

The death-knell for Greenwich Glass sounded with the invention of lead crystal (or ‘flint glass’) in the 1670s by George Ravenscroft (not that I can find any link with today’s Ravenscroft Glass company.) Suddenly no one wanted boring old normal glass any more, they wanted the funky new stuff made with lead oxide instead of potash, and Buckingham’s Greenwich glassworks had to close (although he continued to make mirrors in Vauxhall.)

Perhaps from the point of view of Greenwich’s health, the closure wasn’t such a bad thing. Apparently glassmaking is a very nasty business – creating toxic black fumes and lots of pollution. In fact I’m surprised that it was allowed at all near a Royal palace – though I guess the smoke could have been a contributing factor to the royals moving out for good around that time…

Certainly Buckingham himself wasn’t daft enough to live anywhere near either of his factories. He lived at York House, on the Strand, and although his son sold it off to developers in the 1670s, the main Water Gate entrance (designed by none other than Inigo Jones) survives. Thanks to Victorian engineering (the Embankment) it’s now nowhere near any water – but if you fancy a little trip, take a right out of Embankment tube into Embankment Gardens. Just past the concert stage and deckchairs, the Water Gate still sits, somewhat stranded (no pun intended) but surrounded by some rather pretty flower beds…

Hmm. I appear to have waffled a bit this morning. That’s what comes from dipping into a book of curious facts about London. Somehow, everything eventually connects.


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